Every one in a while a very important article comes along and I want folks to read it so much that I blast it to the world. This is one of those articles. Written by Jesse H. Ausubel, Director of the Program for the Human Environment at The Rockefeller University, it is entitled The Return of Nature: How Technology Liberates the Environment. Read the whole thing!
Forest plantations produce wood more efficiently than unmanaged forests. They meet a growing fraction of demand predictably and spare other forests for biodiversity and other benefits. The growth in plantations versus natural forests provides even greater contrast than the warm versus cool forests. Brazilian eucalyptus plantations annually provide 40 cubic meters of timber per hectare, about five times the production of a warm natural forest and about 10 times that of a cool northern forest. In recent times about one-third of wood production comes from plantations. If that were to rise to 75 percent, the logged area of natural forests could drop by half. It is easy to appreciate that if plantations merely grow twice as fast as natural forests, harvesting one hectare of plantation spares two hectares of natural forest.
An equally important story unfolds on the demand side. We once used wood to heat our homes and for almost forgotten uses such as railroad ties. The Iron Horse was actually a wooden horse — its rails rested on countless trees that made the ties and trestles. The trains themselves were wooden carriages. As president of the Southern Pacific and Central Pacific railroads in their largest expansion, Leland Stanford was probably one of the greatest deforesters in world history. It is not surprising that he publicly advocated for conservation of forests because he knew how railroads cut them. The US Forest Service originated around 1900 in large part owing to an expected timber famine caused by expansion of railroads.
Fortunately for nature, the length of the rail system saturated, creosote preserved timber longer, and concrete replaced it. Charting the three major uses of wood — fuel, construction, and paper — shows how wood for fuel and building has lost importance since 1960 (Figure 7). World production has also saturated. Paper had been gliding upward but, after decades of wrong forecasts of the paperless society, we must now credit West Coast tycoons Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos for e-readers and tablets, which have caused the market for pulp and paper — the last strong sector of wood products — to crumple. Where are the newsstands and stationers of yesteryear? Many paper products, such as steno pads and even fanfold computer paper, are artifacts for the technology museums. Email has collapsed snail mail. US first-class mail fell a quarter in just the five years between 2007 and 2012. As a Rockefeller University employee, I like to point out that John D. Rockefeller saved whales by replacing sperm oil with petroleum. ARPANET and the innovators of email merit a medal for forest rebound.